China > curiosity, culture and challenge

China – a visit thanks to Access China UK and the Nottingham Confucius Institute and Nottingham City Council

An amazing experience, which would have been incredible and fantastic but was made even moreso or as we teacher’s say “EBI” ( even better if) for the fact I went with 9 great Nottingham City colleagues and we had a wonderful Chinese guide and interpreter,  all of whom added the value to make it totally amazing.


Feifei our interpreter at the Ningbo library


The Ningbo 10 (ignore the man on the right he wasn’t with us!)








You cannot go up the Pearl of Shanghai and look over the biggest City in the world (population 24 million) and not think – this is where the future of the world will be centred and so we need a plan, not a Brexit neither an educational plan but a proper plan.









China is a long way away – 5750 miles to be precise or exactly 24 hours from me leaving a hotel in Shanghai to arriving at my front door in Nottingham. But it’s also a long distance away culturally and we so enjoyed discovering just touching upon something of its culture.

It’s a country of the highest population 1.4 billion –roughly 24 times the population of the UK and yet the 4th biggest by area which means a lot and I mean a lot of tower block apartments offices and hotels. Shanghai is the biggest City in the world. (24.2 million). We travelled to Ningbo about 4 hours away, including crossing a bridge of 16km to Ningbo, a City the size of London. It’s busy on the roads but those on cycles, motorcycles or even walking seem to just move at random and hey the cars stop and we saw no accidents. Green spaces are precious.


Red amber green >GO GO GO


Bicycle check, mobile check, helmet -what? Few cares in the world, hoping everyone else will stop.

We enjoyed wonderful cuisine – not like westernised Chinese food. We ate like royalty with exquisite food brought out for us, vegetable dishes, meat, noodles, all kinds of tastes, flavours and textures but not too much rice, rice comes at the end and you are not really expected to eat it. Oh and we used chopsticks all the time. Meals were very sociable, no distractions and plenty of conversations, and no rush, no TV, little wifi. That’s less cultural and more….common sense.



We were very well looked after by our guides, interpreters and hosts, who took us to the most interesting of places from tourist spots, to restaurants and of course to ensuring we travelled to time. In China one is never late. They could not have been more helpful, supportive, informative and generous, as were the hotels we stayed in and all the colleagues we met. And there was a thing – I asked one teacher what she hoped for her pupils “to give them every opportunity to learn”. QED the commonality of the vocation.

The culture is well documented but we were shown honour, respect, admiration and treated with huge kindness and generosity by our hosts. I was delighted to be part of a team that did exactly the same for one another on the trip especially when ‘stuff’ happened and they looked out to encourage, share and support even though we hardly knew each other beforehand. Representing different sectors the conversations gave us all further insight and arguably the best of CPD (one early years, two Primary heads one Primary adviser, four middle leaders from Secondary, one partnership lead and me from the LA). Such enthusiasm to ensure “this works” for our children.


To be a tourist and see the bund and river at Shanghai as well as to go up to the 263m Pearl of Shanghai were something but also wandering the tourist shops and trying to bargain was fun. A privilege to visit the oldest library in China (Ningbo) founded in 1561 and be welcomed as honoured guests was special. More special for us educators as we value our school library or local library and we value lifelong learning. Nevertheless our visit enabled us to consider just how ignorant we were of Chinese history and culture and the potential in the Far East.


What did we miss ? – very little, we had tea, it tasted different but we were ‘tasting’ China. We did not have access to facebook, twitter or google and we had withdrawal but we chatted and we asked questions and discussed education and other matters and we enjoyed the company, well until we hit wifi in a hotel then we caught up on messages via a message/chat system called wechat. We missed traffic jams, we missed litter, we did actually miss a few hours of sleep somewhere along the way. You know something else? We didn’t miss pupils, even English pupils, at that even Nottingham City pupils because we stopped at a service station in this vast country and met 10 pupils from one of our local primary schools – having an incredible time – though perhaps a little tired ( much like us) they were full of the experience.

And so to education and some things I have learned and of course I may be wrong that the whole system looks like this but here are my ponderings :

• Families really value education. Politicians value education. Children value their education. Teachers are highly respected (highest in the world according to this survey). This is a deeply cultural matter and about ethos, respect for schools, for teachers and for learning. We met teachers (sure a small sample but the message overwhelms) full of enthusiasm and diligence, we saw little disruption, and amongst pupils a willingness to work hard and and try your best. There is the extreme high pressures involved in the Gaokao exam but setting that to one side the atmosphere in schools was overwhelmingly positive

Proper resource follows the commitment – beautiful buildings; pride in showing us round. I saw huge sportshall ( possibly 4 full size basketball courts and on the floor above about 30 ping pong tables ( I even played the Principal). Their lecture theatre seated 500. We did not hear any complaint about lack of funding – of course that may be for other reasons, However the conversations reflected on their pride in schools and I was glad to be with a group of Nottingham heads and teachers also proud of their schools. Pay not be better ( not sure really about buying power etc) but most of us would trade a bit for having a culture and pride and a community which hugely respect teachers given consideration and of course good behaviours. [Although my own view is that a vast majority of parents do respect us in the UK – just some politicians and the press don’t always and look where they sit in terms of trust and respect.]


• Teachers teach large groups of 40, and whilst they had nice staff areas to work in, with space to share and discuss, to plan they too felt pressures. It maybe around (only) 3 hours a day at the front but they have no technicians or TAs or other adults in classes. Oh and those evenings when pupils are back in school for several hours studying and doing homework, guess who supervises. Heads and teachers take pride in pupils and in their learning. We heard about two schools at the Bureau sharing speeches and we shared about our two, and common features – pride in the opportunities we offer, in the children’s achievements and the aims and ethos in every school and that included to help our children be global citizens. I asked how the head got his children to work hard – “I don’t have to do anything” he said. Just think what all that means for attendance, punctuality behaviour, background disruption, offering opportunities…..


• I loved the creativity I saw, in particular pride in traditions, but also in creating new traditions. IMG_2883We saw some amazing artwork, incredible calligraphy, beautiful ceramics, others saw sport and music to an amazing standard. We met artists in residence and I was invited to play a computer at a board game, a computer that literally picked up pieces in response to my move and you guessed it – the programme and the hardware created by ….a pupil from scratch.


a CRT – a what?


I also had a discussion with a Chemistry teacher – he had created something but our interpreter didn’t know the words, we had a small hand held device that translated and he said it was a ‘CRT’ and I said ‘oh a Cathode Ray Tube’ and we whooped! I mentioned Thomson, electrons, Crookes and we needed no interpreter –  science can be such a powerful language in itself but check out these facilities:



• Willingness to stay and learn and take every opportunity including boarding, yes boarding for the weekdays because half an hour journey home was “too far”. Long days without TV, without Facebook, without mobile devices and perhaps without immediate family because, they all believe in the benefits from social activity and learning. So we saw some pupils who did more hours of homework in a two days than some of our pupils would do in school in a day. Of course there are concerns about resilience and pressure too.

Hospitality and generosity – we took gifts with us for our school and Bureau colleagues and received many back but sometimes individual  pupils wanted to give us something they had done, some  clearly stayed up to make gifts for their visitors.


MrMcNeill with a beautiful painting made especially for him

I was privileged to pass as one of my gifts the music of Sheku Kanneh Mason ( an ex pupil at my old school) who also kindly wrote me a personal message for the schools which I had translated – that went down really well. ( thank you Sheku). But oh, we had fun – trying out our mandarin, working out currency, bartering, wondering where we were heading when taken by taxi to a school, getting trapped in hotel door (me trying to metaphorically to “open doors”) – looking out for each other and smiling our way through.




• Education bureau officials welcomed our vision for future work with them, they are interested in what we are doing and especially how we measure impact. How we know our City wide plans and also our school plans are being effective, as well as our regulator (ofsted) view. They are keen to foster further links Ningbo > Nottingham and Nottingham > Ningbo. we have lots of ideas from championing exchanges and learning mandarin through to just a better basic understanding of China and our own Chinese community. To be honest they struggled to understand how our system works if it means a local area does not have any control of schools. Welcome to my world!

It is quite an amazement that across the world they are interesting in learning from us.




IMG_3356My colleagues are now busy working out how to manage exchanges, to plan visits with children and to welcome children here to Nottingham. We are looking at how we can work together across the distances and cultures but with an internet and with colleagues here and our own traditions – Nottingham has a University campus in Ningbo which we visited and so there is much to consider and challenge and much remains to be curious about. For me I am committing to try and open more doors with friends in Ningbo – and not these doors.

Tuesday period 1 – Chinese Principals arrive

China 2This last week we hosted 10 Chinese Principals, two interpreters and a facilitator from the National College and University of Nottingham, International team. I would be interested what other SLT, Heads and teachers make of these sorts of visits. All the way from Guangdong they arrived to spend about a month in England with some tourism and much work together on leadership and five days of school visits in three schools, one of these was two days with us.

For me one week into headship is was a genuine privilege to show the school and work out how to do that. In fact as a deputy I always considered it an honour if anyone wanted to come and visit the school, we have had other overseas visitors but of course other school teams, business people and even the odd MP and councillor. I have also enjoyed my own visits to other schools – after all we are all lifelong learners.

They started with a tour of school accompanied by 6 ‘little people’ from school council in pairs with a translator and 3 adults – I was so proud of our Y8 children who returned dutifully with the visitors spot on time, and with big smiles – they had enjoyed showing off their school and answering questions. They then observed lessons in a number of subjects, frankly ones that can manage 10 visitors plus two interpreters plus two of our own mandarin speaker helpers ( who were wonderful – aren’t children jus so able to rise to the occasion). I also arranged it to be Maths and Science (my prejudice, we do these quite well) and also creative areas: Design and Art and also Modern Languages (which we also do well!) Colleagues were very accommodating in fact so were their departments, it’s not really easy being observed as visitors come around, chat with you and children and take a few photos in fact a lot of photos.

China 3I also arranged a few talks which I thought might be interesting: about our school and my (new) vision and after some basic stats, some narrative about the best parts and some guesses at the worst (only done a week remember), some budgets some accountability stuff some stuff about what I think is important and some which bother me about the future. They also heard about our pastoral work and how we teach English and the role of a middle leader. We finished with discussion between them and 5 staff. There really wasn’t enough time to answer their questions perhaps some were too hard – ‘how do you show an ethos to your pupils and help them learn to appreciate it?’

China 8They brought gifts,, some beautiful China cups through to beautiful handmade pennants and even pupils work. Which meant more photos. This showed me how much they honoured the occasion and I was particularly struck when I introduced a colleague who had taught for 30 years they applauded very warmly in their acknowledgment for him as a teacher, clearly for them he had to be recognised and very well honoured, such respect I think even he was surprised. I think we can learn something there.


So what did we find out:

  • They get moved around their provinces, they don’t have a jobs market. They work hard and they retire at 55 on full pay, pay isn’t so high as here by a long way ( equivalent to about £20,000 -£25,000) but they are held in great respect in their communities and by others. They have very high status and are  well looked after’ they told me, for example if they find themselves ill. Teachers teach about half a week timetable the rest dedicated to marking and prep. Wow!
  • One Principal commented on the support given to the children in school. He liked our work with SEND, EAL pupils and with any behavioural issues one to one. He felt support was much stronger. He said our management was ‘stronger and straightforward’ particularly with ‘ naughty’ children. This surprised me but there appear to be pressures on them ( much like here) from all sorts of angles too. Their worries matched some of ours, they were worried about inclusion, they were worried about some patterns in behaviour and wondered if we had rare occasion when parents were not so supportive!
  • They quizzed me long about accountability, who was I responsible to? Well my list was long ( children/parents/staff/governors Diocese, Ofsted) until essentially it rests with governors. I think they felt we were under more pressure than them overall , but I don’t know.
  • Their schools are often very large , our visitor’s schools ranged from 3000 to about 5000 pupils. One with 4000 pupils, said our professionalism was different and he found the atmosphere in our lessons alive and exciting. In essence they enjoyed those creative and practical activities we use in learning. They seemed to note we were looking out to engage all pupils in our lesson. He said the teaching was more practical and inspirational ” something we want to learn from” I was blown away by that.
  • Some still kept asking me how we got our ethos into our pupils and had an extra hour with our assistant head who is head of RE ( worth a reminder we are an RC school ). They are Principals and they have ‘heads’ under them responsible for progress etc too but I couldn’t tell if Pastoral work was part of the core job.
  • They also asked us about multicultural aspects which was of interest, in a City like Nottingham lots of our pupils don’t have English as first language of course, I think that made them think a little.
  • I mentioned staff recruitment, they wondered how we hung onto out best teachers. In China one principal told me if he had 10 vacancies in his school there would likely be 800+ people to choose from.

Overall they came to learn, and to honour us, which they definitely managed to do. I wished we had had more time for me to find out more but it was their visit to us. From our point of view we have all learned things too, but three things really struck me:

1 Their honour, respect, and pride in their profession and in us too, shown to me and my colleagues as well as our children. It was almost tangible and amazing to watch their faces hanging on almost our every word.

2 Whatever I read about Chinese schools and Maths and standards and PISA number 1 etc they aren’t too different in the questions they ask and the systems they develop and the ambitions they all have, their worries and their commitments

3 In the end their interest was in the children in their care, their learning progress and even their morals – so despite the cultural journey and 5000 miles, not that too much different

Here is a link to the story in our  Local Newspaper  Nottingham Post.

Some Questions

Q1 What do you see as the value of such visits to your school?

Q2 Can we learn from other cultures as much as we can learn from schools in the UK, be they similar or with better outcomes?

Q3 Do we have more in common than what we have as differences?


For those in a Church school

Acts 28:7   There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days.

Hebrews 13:2   Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

3 John 1:8   We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

Proverbs 29:18    Where there is no vision, the people perish: but whoever keeps the law, will be happy.